The Keys of the Kingdom and the Visible Catholic Church

Sep 27th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

The idea that the Church is a spiritual communion, identified and unified by sharing the same faith and sacraments, while excellent as an affirmation, is inadequate as a definition of the Church that Christ founded, since this idea fails to account for the governmental and hierarchical principle of the Church, as symbolized by the keys of the kingdom of heaven. These keys are no more divided and internally opposed than the faith or the sacraments themselves. Thus, the Church must be every bit as united in government as she is in faith and sacraments. Furthermore, our Lord’s words to Simon Peter concerning the Church, recorded in Matthew 16, suggest that the government of the universal church is not only invisible (i.e., in heaven), but visible (i.e., on earth). [1]

An invisible or balkanized universal Church would be unable to speak her mind or regulate her life. Yet, it seems clear from Sacred Scripture (Matthew 16:18-19) that the Church that Christ founded would be governed as one Church on earth. If a visible and visibly unified universal Church has never existed, then it is difficult to make sense of Christ’s promises. If such a Church did exist, but has subsequently been destroyed or rendered inoperative, well, forget about difficulty of making sense–Our Lord would have manifestly broken his promises. But that is not possible.

The “catholic” Church is, of course, present in the manner described by St. Ignatius: where the bishop is present, particularly in the Eucharistic celebration, there is the catholic Church. [2] However, I have never seen an argument to the effect that Ignatius believed that the catholic Church, in its visible dimension, is thus reducible to the set of all local churches. At least, such reductionism is not entailed by Ignatius’ affirmation of the presence of the universal Church in the (lawful) eucharistic assembly. The local church is a microcosm of the universal Church, but it is also a part of that Church. Thus, for example, the Apostles and presbyters assembled at Jerusalem (Acts 15) could exercise authority over the local church in Antioch. The universal Church was adjudicating upon a doctrinal and a disciplinary matter. The judgment of the universal Church was binding upon all local churches. As it was then, so it is now, precisely because the universal Church founded by Jesus Christ is yet protected by his power according to his own promise.

Some non-Catholics are fond of referring to widespread dissent from Church teaching, among Catholic clergy, religious and laity, as an indication that the Catholic Church is no more united than Protestantism, and far less so than Orthodoxy. But what is actually established by the undeniable fact of dissenting Catholics is that there is more than one way to become separated from the unity of the universal Church. Once we distinguish the various ways of schism, we can more accurately assess whether dissent from Church teaching or departures from Church discipline dissolves the essential unity of the Catholic Church. One assessment is that what is dissolved or perilously weakened by dissent is not the essential unity of the Church but the dissenters’ own participation in that unity. The only way that dissent within the Church could imply the disunity of the Church would be if each of the disputants had equal ecclesial authority, such that the power of the keys could be exercised in mutually exclusive ways. But this is not [ultimately] the case in the Catholic Church.

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[1] Recently, I came across a website that, among other things, is committed to the defense, from a Reformed perspective, of invisible church ecclesiology. The issue is raised several times in a recent series on apostolic succession, beginning here. I am intrigued by this position, partly because I think that it is, ultimately, the only alternative to understanding apostolic succession, and indeed the papacy, to be of the essence of the “catholic” Church.

[2] St. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaenas, Chapter VIII.

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  1. Can you please explain what do you mean exactly with this:
    I am intrigued by this position, partly because I think that it is, ultimately, the only alternative to understanding apostolic succession, and indeed the papacy, to be of the essence of the catholic church.)?

  2. Andy,

    The position to which I am alluding is that which claims that the one, universal (catholic) church founded by Christ is only invisible (I mean, to us, on earth). Once we grant, as some Protestants do indeed grant, that the catholic church is visible, then we must give some account of how this visible church is, in fact, one visible church. As has been argued here, Protestantism has no principle of visible unity, such that a visible catholic church would be any different, in reality, from an invisible catholic church with visible members and denominations. More arguably, Orthodoxy lacks a principle of visible unity, precisely because she is constituted as a mere plurality of churches, lacking unified, ecclesial government.

    Apostolic succession is a principle of visible unity with Christ, the Head of the Church in heaven and on earth, extending through the apostles to their successors, the bishops, down to the present day. The papacy is the principle of visible unity within the episcopal college, and thence for the entire visible catholic church. Both apostolic succession and the specifically Petrine succession in the bishop of Rome are undeniably of ancient origin; more arguably, these institutions go back to Christ himself, who appointed and established the apostolic college, providing for the succession by means of the sacrament of Holy Orders, and establishing, within that college, also as a perpetual office, a visible head, to exercise the keys of the kingdom on behalf of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. No other principles of visible unity satisfy the conditions of adequacy and antiquity. If there is one visible, catholic church, you can bet that it is something that we don’t get to make up ourselves. Like I said, it seems to me that the best way to avoid this conclusion is simply to deny that the universal church is visible. There are problems with the invisible church position, of course, some of which I alluded to in the post.

    Andrew

  3. “You are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid. ”
    Matt 5:14

    Along with Matt 16, I have always read the above to be a reference to a visible Church and its foundation on Christ. The proof evident in the visible acts of binding and loosing in Matt 16:19 is closely prefigured by Isaiah 22:22, which demonstrates the dynastic succession via the keys in what was a visible hierarchy of temple high priests.

  4. Hey Alan,

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts on Matthew 5 and 16. I always, and only, thought of the former in connection with the personal testimonies of individual believers. Here is another case of both / and, another instance of how Catholicism fills up, rather than replacing, what I already believed. Thanks again.

    Andrew

  5. Hi Andrew,

    Yes, I think Catholicism has a way of perfecting our understanding in a most beautiful and faithful way. Much like how Christ took the Jews interpretation of the Law on marriage and did not throw it out, but rather perfected it. (Matt 5:31-32)

    “The only way that dissent within the Church could imply ecclesial disunity would be if each of the disputants had equal ecclesial authority”

    So very true. The dissent in the Catholic Church is problem, but it has been with the Church since its founding. I dont think there was ever a golden age of obedience. We only have to look at Judas to see that 1 in 12 was a traitor while the Lord walked this very earth. Even the invisible Church Triumphant lost a third of the angels who followed Satan.

    I must admit that I don’t know the reasoning for believing the Church to be invisible, unless we are talking of the Church Triumphant, and the Church Suffering. In which case, it is understood as being invisible. But in most cases, when people refer to the Church, they are by default talking of the Church Militant. Then I become a little shady on what the arguments are in support of such a position.

    “And other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.”
    John 10:16

    In my understanding, the verse above makes reference to the flocks of Jew and Gentile, and how they are all called to be under one fold, and under one Sheppard. It is not coincidental that Jesus also tells Peter(as His Vicar) to feed His sheep. You cannot tend to one universal flock unless you know how to recognize your sheep, and your sheep know how to recognize you. The sheep will scatter without a visible sheppard, and the sheep will scatter if they cannot find the fold. An invisible church that is comprised of a collection of loosely connected individuals who recognize neither one shepperd nor one fold, nor one baptism, nor one faith, does not possess the marks that constitute a Church with the attributes as established by Christ. I think this is why the Holy Father refers to them as ecclesial communities. Not as an insult, but as a faithful recognition of what it means to be a Church.

    Yours in Christ,
    Alan

  6. “The only way that dissent within the Church could imply ecclesial disunity would be if each of the disputants had equal ecclesial authority”

    Of course, that should be tightened up, with the addition of something like: “and there were, in principle, no possibility of appeal to a higher, and ultimately binding, ecclesial authority.”

  7. Andrew P:

    Maybe it’s just me, but I could never take “invisible-church” ecclesiology seriously. God became incarnate in Jesus Christ. So the analogy of faith suggests that his Mystical Body would be, in part but necessarily, like him of whom she is the body in a mystical marriage: one, historically continuous, and utterly concrete. The notion that “the Church” is not a unitary visible body just strikes me as a way of defining “the Church” away.

    Best,
    Mike

  8. Mike,

    I agree with you concerning the fitness of the analogy. I think that there is a tendency to read “spiritual” as “invisible” or “immaterial.” St. Paul derails that train of thought in 1 Cor 15.

    As far as I can remember, from my (Dispensationalist, quasi-Calvinist) evangelical education, the “catholic” church is simply the set of all the elect, i.e., everyone who has genuine faith in Christ, having the Holy Spirit dwelling within, being therefore one with Christ, members of his mystical Body, the Church. The fellows at the site to which I linked (at the end of this post) were suggesting that this sort of notion is more congruent with sola fide than any other; i.e., visible stuff, like sacraments and institutions, are not necessary for spiritual union, justification, etc. Everyone who is united to Christ and justified (by faith alone) is part of the universal church. So, if you take away every visible institution, and every sacrament, you still have the same set of people, the elect / justified, i.e., the catholic church. A *visible* church does require an institution and sacraments, but the *catholic* church doesn’t, it seems, require any visible church. In fact, I think that we accounted for the period 100–1520 AD by simply assuming that there were no true, visible churches in existence, only the catholic / invisible church, comprised (on earth) by a few nameless rogues. Most of the Reformed folk I talk to don’t go this route, but I think that it might be easier, in some ways (though not in others), if they did.

    Andrew

  9. In fact, I think that we accounted for the period 100–1520 AD by simply assuming that there were no true, visible churches in existence, only the catholic / invisible church, comprised (on earth) by a few nameless rogues. Most of the Reformed folk I talk to don’t go this route, but I think that it might be easier, in some ways (though not in others), if they did.

    Indeed, Andrew. I notice that Steve Wedgewood, Peter Escalante, and their ilk won’t go that route. The reasons why should, I think, be obvious. But the careful alternative they try to develop amounts to saying that the gates of hell did prevail against the visible Church for a long while, and were only turned back by a subset of Protestants who refounded the visible Church in the 16th century. That thesis seems even harder to maintain, given the words of Christ.

    Best,
    Mike

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